The Implicit Data Pedagogy of Platform Academia

Universities are have become dependent on digital information infrastructures, bringing them into the domain of what Nick Srnicek describes as platform capitalism. Learning Management Systems, MOOCs, teleconferencing facilities, database management systems, and a host of other networks are constructed and often contracted from private companies, such as Google and Microsoft. When academics at Monash University and a number of other Australian universities committed to industrial action over the past few months, it occurred to me: striking academics might bring management to the bargaining table, but a striking IT department would bring them to their knees. (Fortunately for senior managers, IT services can be sub-contracted from other firms, so that any “strike” action would be a mere failure to deliver services with no benefit for the “strikers”.)

What I will explore in this post is not the impact of formally contracted ICT infrastructure and services, but rather those forms of data collection and management that seem to have a life of their own. You might think here of the proliferation of GoogleScholar as a search engine for scholarly work, or Academia.Edu/ResearchGate as public profiling platforms, or the even more bizarre Publons platform that seeks to capitalise on peer-reviewers’ desires for recognition for their work. Where no edict exists to command or encourage scholars to share their personal and professional data, such platforms have thrived.

What I want to suggest is that these practices of searching, uploading and self-archiving are part of a broader pedagogic practice that may be shaping how many early-career academics think about and enact scholarly work. But to do so, some framework is needed to account for the relationship between transforming information systems and user engagement with those systems. I believe that framework may be usefully developed from the concept of ‘data doubles’.

What are Data Doubles?

Before the turn of the 21st century, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson were searching for a means to describe the transformation of surveillance. Whereas the metaphor of “big brother” and Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” did a good job of describing the techno-psychology of surveillance in discrete systems (where those being watched are aware of how they are being watched), few attempted to describe how the convergence of several surveillance systems might transform surveillance itself. They argue that surveillance technologies were converging

to the point that we can now speak of an emerging ‘surveillant assemblage’. This assemblage operates by abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled into distinct ‘data doubles’ which can be scrutinized and targeted for intervention. (p. 606)

The flows of data that they describe might, in our contemporary context, include not only explicit data that users have offered systems (i.e. personal data, Google searches or publication information) but also meta-data concerning the timing, volume and frequency of data entry. As new modes of data collection join the existing assemblage, the possibilities for the aggregation, combination, filtering and inferences made from data multiply.

In short, data doubles are the ways that data connected to a specific signifier (i.e. your name) are re-assembled to form a meaningful whole. Some data doubles you are likely familiar with already include resumes, GoogleScholar profiles, web search results for persons’ names, performance evaluations. All these data doubles rely on a broad network of data collection points, networks, nodes, infrastructure, and decision-makers (whether human or algorithmic). And because the meaning of such data doubles depends on the data doubles related to other signifiers (i.e. other resumes, other GoogleScholar profiles, other search results and performance evaluations), the final meaning of any data double is always contextual.

The intentional manipulation of data doubles may be described as a ‘speculative’ practice, as the meaning produced through any data double cannot be known until the point of its realisation. Will publishing more peer-reviewed papers increase the perceived value of your ResearchGate profile? It might depend on whether your profile is compared to: scholars at your career stage; of your nationality; of your current era; of your strata of university; etc… As Lisa Adkins has recently described in a different context, speculative practices have the potential to change our relationship to both time and sociality. The value of data doubles and not set in stone, but rather produced through what they might ‘put in motion’ (to use Adkins’ phrase). The double’s value is the promise of some form of input into the conditions of a wager between the academic and an uncertain future.

Managing Data Doubles: Speculatory Prosumption

While some data doubles are clearly in the control of the persons they are seen to represent (you most likely compile your own resume), most seem to approach us, in some form or another. Profiling sites such as ResearchGate and GoogleScholar do not wait for academics to log-on and produce their own input, but generate profiles for them. If you’re depending on your scholarly reputation to sustain your work and career, the onus is then on you to mange the impression that the data double presents to onlookers. George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson claim that the work that individuals do on profile-based platforms (and other social media) is both an act of consumption and production. Online impression management produces value for the tech companies that manage these sites – value freely given by users.

What is interesting here is that it is this voluntary labour is enabled by the positioning of the data double within a speculative environment. In other cyber spaces, prosumption may be encouraged by the immediate benefits of productive consumerism: such as Facebook’s social networking and communication functionality or Instagram’s capacity to host large archives of visual data. As Ashlin Lee found in his study of surveillance on Facebook, the perceived benefits of immediate access often outweigh concerns over the potential costs. But the benefits of digital academic profiles are far less certain that the benefits of social media platforms. Data doubles contain a double speculation: that one’s performance through the double is ‘successful’ (i.e. compares well against other people’s doubles) and also that the very existence of that data double means something beyond the platform. In other words: What is a killer Academia.Edu profile actually worth?

The management of data doubles is hence speculatory prosumption. The value that one hopes to add through the labour of profile management is not immediately realised, but rather might be realised at some point in the future. In this sense, it is a kind of hope labour. While there is no obligation to perform speculatory prosumption, the possibility that you are being reckless by not putting your best self forward though these platforms is enough to motivate many to engage beyond any apparent immediate benefit. Labour is effectively extracted from academics and aspiring candidates because “you just never know…”

Early Career Doubling: A Pedagogy?

In labour markets where individualised competition is the norm (i.e. an era of low unionism), digital profile platforms may be seen as one of a range of “coaches” in the arts of competitive self presentation. While William Davies notes that such coaches may include “business gurus, life coaches, ‘leaders’, business lobbyists, motivational speakers and national business representatives”, non-human entities such as digital media platforms may perform similarly disciplinary functions under the right circumstances. Melissa Gregg has already gone some way to describe this disciplinary function as the “athleticism of accomplishment“: self-tracking technologies may be treated as evidence of achievement, to be improved upon and presented as markers of esteem.

This possibly disciplinary function presents some interesting questions for the field of higher education governance research. A vast array of data collection and presentation platforms emphasise the comparability of profiles (chiefly through metricising existing inputs, such as publication counts, or through producing more idiosyncratic metrics, such as ResearchGate’s RG Score). They hence imply an analytic for interpreting the conduct of academics: in this case of GoogleScholar or ResearchGate, as a rivalry between scholars who are ordinarily ranked by the comparison of metrics.

My questions are thus: Might the management of data doubles perform an implicit pedagogical role in the lives of early-career scholars, who are seeking work in saturated job markets? How vital is the input of scholars across different cohorts to the performance of prosumption for digital profiling platforms? And perhaps most pressingly: Has the uptake of data double management influenced the performance of scholarly work? Luka Carfagna’s research suggests that prosumption is not always experienced as labouring for another, but may be felt to be an exchange between persons within a system rather than a quality of the system itself. A deeper ethnography is warranted here.

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Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Sociology (2018a), I sought to describe how something as abstract as a political rationality is experienced in the everyday lives of scholars. The growth of audit cultures, managerial power and new languages for describing academic work are each a focal point of a broader arena of political changes to higher education and academic research. In another recent paper (2018b), I have also argued that we currently practice scholarship in a culture of authenticity, in which our personal values and identities are often inseparable from how we evaluate our work and careers. I find the intersection of these papers – of political economy and self-identity – an unavoidable part of everyday early-career academic life. After a good half-hour of catching up with friends and describing our small victories, stressful setbacks and unexpected re-routings, an apologetic tone may find its way into our conversation. Like a proper middle-class apology for excessive behaviour, one of us will acknowledge, “aren’t we good neoliberal subjects?”

This trope, of confessing how embedded we are in an individualist, boastful ritual, is representative of an identity tension at the heart of early-career academic life. Peter Bansel and Bronwyn Davies (2010) described the longer, later-career version of this conversational trope in a book chapter, where they interview a highly successful professor who works to make ‘neoliberal’ (managerial) forms of government work because of ‘a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk’. The professor is resigned to working within the system to achieve ends that he claims are beyond them and informed by Christian values and a sense of duty towards his colleagues and students. But the apology trope comes in the form of an admission that there is no freedom from working with management. Freeing oneself from neoliberalism is akin in futility to trying to buying your way out of capitalism: the means are as important as the ends.

It’s very easy to feel very small in comparison to a school, an organisation, a nation-state, and especially a political rationality. Like capitalism, the concept of neoliberalism seems to pursue scholars in moments of vulnerability: in speculating about the future, in career planning, and in justifying self-serving behaviours. But what I want to clarify here is that this political rationality, though wide-spread and deeply embedded in parts of everyday life, is not mysterious nor all-pervasive. Rather, what Philip Mirowski (2013) describes as ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is experienced through specific spaces, technologies and habituated moments in everyday life. Neoliberalism is felt to be so pervasive because of its successful normalisation into the cultural repertoires through which we make sense of, organise and act upon ourselves and others. That is, the methods for thinking about the world encouraged by neoliberalism seem pervasive because they colonise not only our present, but also speculation about myriad future possibilities.

Let’s use the example of academic career planning. In my doctoral study of 29 Australian academics, career planning emerged in conversations as a key practice through which academics felt that they negotiated their values and put strategies into practice. Academic career planning in an exercise premised on uncertainty. Participants often described the ‘luck’ of securing full-time work, ‘resilience’ to downturns in career prospects, and having to cultivate a ‘go-getting’ attitude. Individualised strategies and explanations were the standard for accounting for career planning in the presence of systemic risks, such as limited job opportunities or time-constraints placed on activities by departmental management. To cope with the cognitive dissonance of thinking of the career as both a personal responsibility and a ‘lucky’ (impersonal) process, academics may engage in what Caroline Clarke and David Knight (2015) call ‘careering’ or what Ruth Müller (2014) identifies as the ‘anticipatory acceleration’ of work. However, these strategies are not conceived of and executed in isolation: schemas must be learned through socialisation. Neoliberalism is apparent in both policy frameworks that incentivise competitive behaviours, but also in institutions that socialise strategies for coping with competition. Career planning is a key site for encouraging this socialisation.

If we take the idea that career planning is a site of governmental socialisation seriously, then cultural norms that prescribe career trajectories are themselves part of a governmental apparatus. Career planning connects the conduct of academics with the idea of ‘risk’ as a narrative tool, shaping how academics confront uncertainty in their careers. As Mirowski claims, for the neoliberal subject, risk is a test of virtue: ‘The modern denizen of neoliberal society has not demonstrated real flexibility of personal identity until they have prostrated themselves before the capricious god of risk’ (2013, p. 120). In early-career planning, risk can be experienced as performance of ‘hope labour’ (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) – that is, labour performed (usually gratis) with the intention of gaining experience or professional kudos. Careering, anticipatory acceleration and hope labour are not only career-management practices, but also entwined with the socialisation of academics into neoliberal policy frameworks.

So, coming back to the conversation at the beginning of this post: Aren’t we good neoliberal subjects? Perhaps. It would be difficult to build a case for employment or promotion without paying attention to how you measure up. But the question of identity does not fit well with a theory of political reason such as neoliberalism: our identities are only frozen moments with processes of socialisation and self-formation. Perhaps the more valuable question to ask here is: how have we come to learn and accept these practices for self-management? Only once this empirical work has been done can we trace these modes of self-formation back to the rationalities, discourses and technologies of power that enable their operation. So, in place of the question about our subjecthood, I instead ask: How do we make good neoliberal subjects?

 

Works cited:

Bansel, P. and B. Davies (2010) Through a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk, in J. Blackmore, M. Brennan and L. Zipin (eds.) Re-positioning University Governance and Academic Work, pp. 166-146, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cannizzo, F. (2018a) Tactical evaluations: Everyday neoliberalism in academia, Journal of Sociology 54(1): 77-91.

Cannizzo, F. (2018b) ‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity, The Sociological Review 66(1): 91-106.

Clarke, C.A. and D. Knight (2015) Careering through academia: Securing identities or engaging ethical subjectivities? Human Relations 68(12): 1865-1888.

Kuehn, K. and T.F. Corrigan (2013) Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production, The Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9-25. Available at http://www.polecom.org/index.php/polecom/article/view/9.

Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London: Verso.

Müller, R. (2014) Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the practices of academic life science postdocs, Forum: Qualitative Social Research / Sozialforschung 15(3): Art. 15. Available at http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2245.